First came Ten, and it was good. Then came Nevermind, and it was a game-changer.
Nevermind defined the better part of a decade and the people living in it. Two weeks later, overshadowed by one of the most famous albums of all time, another Seattle band had their first major release.
On October 8, 1991 Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger. a twelve track powerhouse of an album that sounded nothing like Ten or Nevermind. Unfortunately, it was lumped in a category with the same word people used to describe Ten and Nevermind and anything from Alice In Chains’ catalog.
Badmotorfinger rocketed Soundgarden into the mainstream. The songs exemplified a matured songwriting from the band’s past releases. It had a handful of singles that worked across the board; catering to metal heads, classic rock die-hards, and prog enthusiasts. The album opened with the one-two punch of “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined,” radio ready songs with original sounding riffs as catchy as the melodies.
The band’s signature sound during the release of Badmotorfinger and subsequent tours was completely unique to anything else at the time, or anything they’ve done since.
Though complicated, the songs were catchy. Though ‘90s (which was modern), the band could be ‘70s and ’80s. Singer Chris Cornell belts his heart out for an hour straight, caring little for lower octaves. Guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron, and then new bassist Ben Shepard do the equivalent with their instruments from start to finish.
The straightforward, chest-thumping heavy rock feel of the album remains a stark contrast to the band’s next two releases where they utilized more dynamics. Songs on Superunknown were sometimes slow and trippy. Some tracks from Down on the Upside were blues influenced, more pop sensible or more experimental, or had a mandolin. While these two proved the band was capable of excellent songwriting, the songs on Badmotorfinger showed Soundgarden as one of the heaviest and hardest-hitting bands of the Seattle acts it was grouped with.
The unique sound, combined with radio hits, and tons of play on MTV broke Soundgarden through to the upside, and the band continued to grow for six years.
Then in 1997, the band broke up. Cornell and Thayil disagreed on the musical direction of the band, with Cornell wanting the band’s sound to rely less on heavy guitar riffs. Though the four members went on to perform solo or in other projects, Soundgarden wasn’t heard from again until a tweet hit the Internet 13 years later on New Years Day.
Eight months and one week after Chris Cornell’s twitter account sent the rock world buzzing, Soundgarden walked on stage as the sun dipped behind Chicago’s Willis Tower. Ben Shepard’s other-worldly low bass tone rumbles alongside an audio clip that opens the seventh track on Badmotorfinger’s “Searching with my Good Eye Closed”.
And just like that, Soundgarden is back. Even though, years later the band isn’t just running through the hits. Half the set featured the four members locking in on mostly songs from ‘91 or earlier, sending tens of thousands into a boot stomping frenzy, proving that even after a long hiatus and the effects of aging, Soundgarden’s early material still rocks harder and truer than almost any other band performing today.
The band must know this is the case. They’ve been listening to countless rip-off bands figure out the formula to hard-rock success for the past decade. Countless bands with a gravelly voiced front man, big choruses and generic rock riffs have taken over the mainstream airwaves, each new band as unrecognizable and indistinct as the last.
So as Soundgarden re-enters the atmosphere, they’ve decided to mix the old with the new.
The old comes in the form of “Black Rain”, the band’s new single off of the recent collective Telephantasm. “Black Rain” was originally written and intended for release during the Badmotorfinger sessions. Knowing this, the song feels right at home between any of the album’s thundering tracks. That Soundgarden chose “Black Rain” to re-integrate itself into the forefront of active rock acts proves this band is going back to the grinding rock riffs, Cornell’s over-the-top power wail and a loud as hell rhythm section that made the band big in the first place. “Black Rain” is the first single in over 13 years, and put Soundgarden and its signature sound circa ’91 back on the map fast, debuting at #24 on US Billboard Charts.
In the ’90s, Soundgarden cut its teeth with this sound combined with endless touring. Today, the band is getting the sound out with more modern methods. To release Telephantasm, Soundgarden paired with Activision and instantly went platinum when the CD was packaged with “Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock”. “Black Rain” (also a playable track in Guitar Hero) has a new animated music video directed by “Metalocalypse’s” Brendon Small. Lollapalooza billed the group as the main attraction last year, outshining popular mega-indie acts like The Strokes or Arcade Fire, or pop superstars like Lady Gaga and Green Day. The band was also one of the featured musical guests on the highly anticipated return of Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show, where the audience dwarfed even the screaming Lolla masses.
The band is starting over, getting as heavy as possible to prove they can, and because Soundgarden just sounds best when over-the-top and massive.
Where other popular Seattle acts from the ’90s, such as Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains have managed to revive, survive and occasionally thrive through slight, steady growth over the last few years, Soundgarden is starting fresh by going big and taking chances. While they may have been underappreciated in the frenzied wake of “Alive” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the sound captured on Badmotorfinger could be what Soundgarden needs to re-introduce themselves to the masses of rock, finally ready for something outside of the same old formula.
Soundgarden playing Conan on 11/09/2010: